Right Christmas (with apologies to Irving Berlin)

10 Dec

He’s dreaming of a Right Christmas
Unlike the ones we’ve ever known
Where checks on power topple, and
Children jostle on their
Way to food banks in the snow

He’s dreaming of a Right Christmas
With every Brexit pledge he cites

May your votes be cast with delight
And may none of your Christmases be Right

Oh, he’s dreaming of a Right Christmas
With every Brexit pledge he cites

May your votes be cast with delight
And may none of your Christmases be Right




Family Fortunes: What’s on offer in GE2019?

25 Nov

With the publication of the Conservative manifesto, we now have documents from all the main parties outlining their proposals for government, following the General Election next month.  True to the wonk in Wonklifebalance, I have looked at them all to see what they are offering in the way of childcare and parental leave policies.  The fact that each of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have proposed measures in these areas, indicates that parents of young children, and working mothers in particular, are a part of the electorate they wish to address directly.  Against a background of stagnating wages, and with women less likely to report that they have decided who they will vote for, this comes as little surprise… As Sarah Ronan pointed out in the Independent recently, working mothers are at least as important a group to cultivate for success in this election, as ‘Workington man’ – and they are fed up of having their priorities overlooked.


What promises await voters seeking relief from the diet of stretched wages, expensive childcare and work-life out-of-balance?  Well, while childcare provision gets a makeover across the political spectrum, there’s actually pretty slim pickings regarding reform of our ailing parental leave system.  Perhaps the Conservatives are simply waiting for the results of their consultation on this issue, which is rather mistimed electorally, as the deadline for submissions falls on Friday.  Consultations on neo-natal leave and flexible working closed in October, and the manifesto says that the Tories will now offer neo-natal leave.  They will also ‘encourage’ flexible working and aim to make it ‘easier for men to take paternity leave’ – er, that’s pretty much it. Apart from beefing up legislation to outlaw maternity discrimination, there is no positive offer on parental leave, shared or otherwise.


Both Labour and the Lib Dems do a bit about parental leave, but choose not to address the big issue of reforming shared parental leave. Labour has extended the option of shared parental leave to self-employed people as part of their Charter for the Arts.  But there are no dedicated quotas of parental leave for fathers, even though these are widely viewed as a major component in closing the gender gap for working parents.  Bizarrely, the Labour party has opted to extend paid maternity leave to 12 months; while this leave can be transferred to men if mothers wish to do so, this move risks making our unequal system even more unequal, by giving more months to mothers at relatively low rates of wage replacement.  Doubling paternity leave to 4 weeks, while welcome, does little to revolutionise traditional patterns of leave-taking.  Similarly, the Liberal Democrats propose tripling paternity leave to 6 weeks, but without proposals related to wider parental leave.


Meanwhile, in childcare it’s bonanza time – if by bonanza you mean coming up with ideas to show that the inadequacies of the current system have registered, while being a bit more vague on implementation.  As regular readers know, 30 hours free childcare really is quite complicated to provide.  All three parties recognise that this as a major concern, and they are competing to improve on the current patchy and under-funded system. That they have all put money on the table, is some recognition of the precariousness of today’s services.


Most ambitious is Labour, looking to reverse the cuts to Sure Start Children’s Centres throughout the country, and to create a new Sure Start Plus network, with provision for under-2s.  This offer would aspire to provide 30 hours free childcare for all 2-4 year olds within five years, as well as new care for children between 1 and 2 years old.  Labour would invest in a graduate workforce and recruit 150,000 Early Years staff.  They would also subsidise additional hours of childcare, above the 30 hours per week, on a sliding scale according to income. The price tag of around £4.5 billion indicates the step change these proposals would represent, with costs in part recouped via increased participation of women in workforce.


The Conservatives concentrate more on the enabling role of wraparound childcare in England, to facilitate employment.  Focussing on after-school and holiday provision, they propose a £1 billion investment, comprising £250 million per year for three years, to boost school provision of out-of-hours services.  This could mean supporting voluntary sector providers too.  A further £250 million will cover capital costs where schools need new staff or equipment to establish wraparound services.  There is no mention of additional support for under-2s.  The aim is for 250,000 additional children to have on-site summer childcare in primary school.  As such, this is clearly a more modest proposal than Labour’s.


Over with the Liberal Democrats, Children’s Centres receive £1 billion funding. Responding to the need to plug the childcare gap between the end of maternity leave and eligibility for free hours at age 2, they will also give working parents of children aged 9 months to 2 years an entitlement of 35 hours free childcare for 48 weeks of the year.  Like Labour, they want to increase the proportion of Early Years staff with qualifications, and they will triple the Early Years Pupil Premium to help the most disadvantaged children.  They will also roll out the Baby box programme (which has been established in Scotland) more widely.  This scheme gives new parents a box containing basic clothing, a thermometer and books for their newborn.


Parents undoubtedly find themselves in the spotlight this election, with all parties recognising that they need to offer something more.  There is enthusiasm for Early Years services as helping to narrow the gaps in opportunities between the most and least advantaged children. However, ensuring that major investment is rolled out effectively, and that staff are in place to fulfil our leaders’ ambitions, will be far from child’s play ….



So they’re leaving ….

31 Oct

It seems fitting that Hallowe’en marks the season of remembrance of the departed, as much earthly commentary is currently taken up with the exit of MPs from parliament, in advance of the impending election.  Top of the list of concerns is that women may be leaving in disproportionate numbers, and that high levels of abuse directed at them, may be behind this trend.


What are the numbers actually revealing?  In a rapidly changing landscape, it’s hard to keep up, but I am using the figures provided by Gavin Freeguard of the Institute of Government to keep track.  As of this afternoon, 58 members were leaving – a tally that even includes one MP’s decision to stand again, having previously brought the number exiting to 59.  Everyone has noted ‘volatility’ in our politics, and this seems to extend even into decisions to stand down or not.


As soon as MPs’ announcements of intention to leave the Commons began to come in, there was comment on the loss of women, and query as to whether the figures were unusual.  At the raw level, the figure of 58 is not high, compared with the 90 who left parliament in 2015, and other even higher figures in the past.  In terms of proportionality, women make up just under a third of MPs leaving, a fraction in tune with the proportion of women in parliament overall. This apparent match in numbers has led some to say that any reference to gender is unnecessary.  However, as women have grown in numbers in parliament comparatively recently, the proportion leaving would be expected to be below the proportion sitting, as women are more likely to be recent entrants, at earlier points in their political careers.


Sunder Katwala, of British Future, has outlined in a more detailed analysis on Twitter, that there are some differences between the type of women and the type of men who bringing their political careers to an end.   Broadly speaking, the men leaving are what you might call the ‘usual suspects’, politicians with several elections behind them, and of ages in line with conventional retirement.  Amongst the women, duration served is lower on departure, and more of them are relatively young.  This trend is particularly true of Conservative women.  The average age of Tory women standing down is 51, compared to 64 among Conservative men and 67 for Labour women.  This points to distinctive issues in the Conservative party, where women have arrived in numbers even more recently than is the case for Labour, and whose current leader is associated with ‘woman problems’.


The more you look at the figures, the more it becomes clear that they cannot by themselves tell us what the reasons behind MPs’ standing down might be.  As we’re about to face our third election in 4 years, our attention has been captured by parliamentary minutiae – as Brexit has challenged ‘business as usual’ in politics, there is more focus on how politicians are behaving and assessing its significance; who was leaving parliament at the end of a session would often barely register in ‘normal’ times.


Current political divisions have led to many pointing to the ‘toxic’ nature of debate, and MPs have often been subject to high levels of abuse.  It has been shown in a range of studies that women and people of colour in public life, experience higher levels of online abuse than white men – Diane Abbott has been the target of sustained abuse at a level far beyond other MPs.  The mention of the toll of such a climate in the parting statements of Heidi Allen and Nicky Morgan, and more widely, is a concerning development.  Male MPs have not referred to this in their reasons for departure.  Parliament itself has also been called to account for bullying and harassment in its culture.  All of this background provides ample potential reason for people to wish to depart. The observations that some are leaving because they are out of favour with party leadership, or out of step with their constituents’ views on Brexit, or have slim majorities they are unlikely to sustain, have come thick and fast.  In a polarised political atmosphere, it has been open season for exit to be pursued by critics’ confirmation bias …


In all this, it is not clear that we can discount gender as a factor.  Parliament remains a male-dominated institution, where women are in a minority and often in more junior positions.  When they do reach prominence or high office, they remain subject to sexism both in the chamber (‘calm down dear’; ’humbug’) and in the media (remember ‘Legs-it’?).   When abuse comes women’s way, it is against a backdrop of sexism, and a struggle to be taken seriously, something that is not experienced in the same way by men.  It may be that the female MPs leaving parliament mid-career are signalling that the benefits of a life a politics are still less likely to outweigh the costs, if you a woman.





What next for parental leave and flexible working?

9 Oct

It’s National #WorkLifeWeek , and appropriately enough, responses are due on elements of the government’s consultation on its Good Work plan to support families.  This is seeking views on parental leave and flexible working policies. Views on Neonatal Leave, where parents need to attend hospital if their newborn is ill, and on transparency in employers’ publication of flexible working and parental leave entitlements, need to be submitted by 11th October.  Meanwhile, questions relating to government policy on parental leave, require responses by late November.


In bold contrast to other areas of current policy, the government is keen to emphasise trade-offs in choosing between different options in these schemes. There are a lot of questions about the relative merits of different lengths of parental leave, and of levels of pay entitlements and capping.  It’s like that bit in an eye test where they ask about whether you see better with lens A or B, but without the part where you get the sum of all the options for your best vision.


Like the Gender Equality Roadmap before it (cited in the Good Work plan, and which I blogged about earlier ) there’s a lot of observations about things we already know, without much sense of an overarching commitment to resources in the area.  This is an issue when the choices being asked about, often seem to boil down to ‘do you want people – especially fathers – to be able to access additional periods of leave, or would you like them be better paid?’.  As the status quo is widely viewed as inadequate in terms of length and pay, it all feels like a bit of a damp squib.  To its credit, the plan does look at international evidence, and it addresses the importance of wider culture change in enhancing mothers’ ability to return to work, and fathers’ ability to spend more time with their children.  But it doesn’t seem to provide much direction with what it sees – it’s all a matter of trade-offs, you see.  This might seem fair enough in a consultation, but options to extend leave and pay entitlements together, tend to be couched in terms of risks to labour supply, winners and losers in different groups, and concentrating on the economic costs, rather than social benefits. There’s an implicit feel of ‘this is going to cost’, without much attention on how costs of extending fathers’ leave may be partially offset by more mothers in the workforce.  If you want something closer to Nordic policies – and many do, and they have the benefit of being relatively effective in getting mothers back to work and Dads on parental leave – then you need to commit at a national level to put resources in.  This means financial support, but also assistance with practical ways of encouraging behaviour change in the workplace.  Without  resources, we’ll be consulting ad infinitum on why take-up of shared parental leave is so low…


The plan also discusses options around publishing flexible working and family leave policies, and advertising flexible working at point of hire.  Mumsnet has been running a campaign to #Publishparentalleave so that employees can make informed choices about jobs. A proposition to make employers’ flexible and parental leave policies accessible via gender pay gap reporting, has been welcomed by a range of organisations.  The consultancy Timewise has sounded a note of caution regarding enforcement of advertising flexibility, as it may raise the prospect of ‘flexwashing’ – that is, employers stating flexible options are available, without meaningfully providing them. They argue that employers need additional resources to implement flexible working properly, and that government could fund guidance and support.  The options for reforming parental leave and pay raise similar issues: without an infrastructure of universal, high quality, affordable childcare, and resources to provide better levels of pay for periods of leave, and without tools to encourage senior managers to take leave themselves – and to manage and promote others who do so – we could end up stuck in the spin cycle…




Girly swot

8 Sep

 Our PM Boris Johnson has been embroiled in new controversy (or should that be, ‘has got himself into a bit of a scrape’…) for calling David Cameron ‘a girly swot’ in notes on Cabinet papers discussing the prorogation of parliament. The notes were revealed by Sky News, following a Court release where the words had been redacted. It would appear that the term ‘girly swot’ had been considered embarrassing for someone in high office to use in such a memo.


This schoolboy insult does seem to tell us quite a lot about the man who used it.  For one thing, he is someone who sees no great formality in the documents of State, no reason to watch words on record – just ‘be himself’.  This attitude must have been seen as potentially troublesome by whoever saw ‘girly swot’ redacted in the first place. However, in a Trumpian political context, it could be viewed as part of Boris Johnson’s appeal, for people who go for his brand of so-called ‘anti-establishment’ ‘straight-talking’: Boris is just ‘like that’ and they (often similarly aged, or older, men) like him that way.


Meanwhile, many others have been quick to point out that the Prime Minister has form in using this type of playground language.  He first called David Cameron a ‘girly swot’ a few years ago, recalling that Cameron got a first class degree, while he, Boris Johnson, the popular Classicist extraordinaire, did not. This instance seems to underline that he means the term to be derogatory.  He’s playing to a gallery that he wants to root for him, rather than a more academically successful colleague. There’s an implication that he is the ‘real man’, and that to be ‘girly’ is undesirable.  Coupled with his recent use of the term ‘big girl’s blouse’, which he lobbed across the chamber at Jeremy Corbyn in an exchange about calling a General Election, it does imply sexism on Johnson’s part. Over on twitter, women in politics and journalism pointed out how anachronistic the language was. They wondered how being a studious woman was something to be ashamed of – ‘Girly swot is a compliment, right?’ tweeted Sky’s own Sophy Ridge.


I’m probably one of nature’s ‘girly swots’ myself, and the added issue for me in the PM’s use of the term, is that it implies that attention to detail in politics (wonkery, you might say) is a weakness.  Boris Johnson is trying to extricate the UK from the EU, unravelling over 40 years of legal and trade agreements.  If I was embarking on such an exercise, I’d want all the ‘girly swots’ I could get.  But then I’m not sure Dominic Cummings is a big fan of ‘girly swots’ either…. This morning Sophy Ridge asked the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, what he thought of the Prime Minister’s language.  He evaded, saying ‘you can call me a girly swot anytime’. That is not something I would have in mind for someone who was recently part of ‘showing off wives and policies’ in the Tory leadership contest.  The report for this term’s Conservative men reads ‘Must try harder’ ….





Spending more time with our families …

29 Aug

As Ruth Davidson steps down from the Conservative leadership in Scotland, citing the primary reason as being her commitment to her young son and the family life that top-flight politicians so frequently find it hard to balance with the rigours of campaigning, travelling and irregular working hours, I was struck by the difference that her being a woman has made to the accompanying discussion.

When male politicians resign ‘to spend more time with their family’ it is often treated as a kind of euphemism.  We routinely assume that they have committed politics. Or, find out that they have had an affair, that makes their position somehow untenable.  Either way, the ‘excuse’ is seen as standing for something else.  And in the case of affairs, it’s often met with a collective eyeroll, and the schadenfreude comments about how the wife must be delighted to have him around more …

However, when Davidson remarked that her son’s arrival in November had made her reassess her feelings about leadership and the possibility of future campaigning, with all the separations from home that that entails, the one thing people do not seem to have done, is disbelieve her account completely.  Sure, she’s known to disgree with Boris Johnson on a range of issues, and may even disapprove of his decision to prorogue Parliament, though she did not overtly say so.  But the pull of a child aged under one for its mother, has largely been viewed as a ‘real’ element of the story, in a way that is not broadly characteristic of treatment of men resigning for ‘family reasons’.

In the event, Ruth Davidson entered into the current Brexit crisis only in so far as to say that MPs should back PM Johnson’s (somewhat opaque) efforts to secure a new deal with the EU. In this way, she said, they could avoid the spectre of No Deal.  No criticism was made of the Prime Minister’s strategy – possibly another sign that a General Election may happen, and Davidson would be aware of the significance for her UK party, of retaining a Conservative presence in Scotland.

Over on Radio 4, towards the end of the PM programme, two women who happen to be mothers and involved in political commentary – Hannah White of the Institute for Government, an authoritative think tank, and Zoe Williams, the Guardian columnist – took part in a discussion about the issues in balancing career and family life.  They noted that there is still much more to be done to support female MPs in the midst of early parenthood, as the template of of work assumes a level of availability that is hard to maintain without resources of alternative care, and – especially relevant for Scottish and other far-flung representatives – proximity to place of work.  Making full parental leave available to both male and female parliamentarians would potentially mitigate against all these factors impacting female politicians disproportionately.  I have often written about these structural issues, and they do bring us back to some of the geographic and economic inequalities which have some role in how we got into the wider political turmoil we are all now part of …

Back with Ruth Davidson’s announcement, and the coverage it has received, which provides yet another example of the differential treatment of men and women in public life: she as truth-telling about work-life balance, men as finding an expedient getaway.  We could, alternatively, believe, that Davidson, like her male counterparts, is using ‘family reasons’ as political cover.  And if we did, that might be viewed as very of the moment ..













X marks the spot

4 Jul

The government has just published its Gender Equality Roadmap, launched with a flourish yesterday by Penny Mordaunt, in her capacity as Women and Equalities Minister. 


The Roadmap charts the types of disadvantage women encounter at different stages in their lives and sets out government initiatives in response.  So far, so good … but the trouble is that the roadmap is hardly new, and the responses aren’t big on concrete action either.  Researchers and policy analysts have been charting women’s lifetime economic disadvantage compared to men for years –  and counting the cost (and calculating the value) of childcare and elder care.  We know that women’s career trajectories leave them lower-earning in prime years, and under-pensioned in old age, compared to men.  We also know that girls are less likely to enter scientific careers, or to find jobs in the most lucrative sectors of the labour market.  Like many reports before it, the roadmap talks about engaging girls in STEM, but has little to say about enhancing the esteem in which traditionally female sectors of the labour force are held, or encouraging boys to get involved in them.  The Roadmap acknowledges that the benefits system has not always met the needs of women, and proposes that Universal Credit will simplify the process of claiming and improve  outcomes for women.  This claim is rather hard to reconcile with the evidence that Universal Credit has driven many to foodbanks during the long waiting periods before payments are made.  No mention is made of the single payment per household, a feature of Universal Credit which campaigners have highlighted as having potentially negative impacts for women. 


The Roadmap discusses Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and flexible working, as policies which can contribute to closing the gender gap in earning and progression at work.  While it is welcome that the government is reviewing the current SPL system, and ‘celebrating’ employers who offer beyond the statutory levels of pay, we already know that without higher pay levels, Shared Parental Leave is a non-starter for many families, however well-disposed towards it parents are in theory.  And we also know from international evidence that our current system falls well short of the conditions required for it to become a mainstream option – I’ve blogged about this repeatedly – e.g. here.  The Roadmap proposes a new digital tool to inform parents better of their leave and childcare options, but without more resources it is hard to see how this will make any significant difference to take-up.  Pilots for innovation in flexible working may be more promising, but we do seem to have been stuck at the pilot stage for a long time now ….


 The Roadmap does acknowledge a range of factors including direct discrimination and harassment which contribute to women’s disadvantage, and it makes mention of intersectionality and the value of care work as well as its costs. It also flags that the Government Equalities Office will now sit in the Cabinet Office, which should aid cross-departmental working.  But, as the Women’s Budget Group points out, identifying the issues is a first step, and the solutions to gender inequality require financial investment – in public services, in childcare and social care.  Instead of a Roadmap, perhaps we need a treasure map, with X marking the spot where a budget for women’s needs is to be found. 


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